THERE wasn’t much laughing and joking to be had at Filbert Street on April Fools’ Day in 1996.
Leicester City’s season was in a tailspin and a sack of letters delivered that day to Martin O’Neill, the relatively recently appointed manager, let him know exactly what the supporters thought of him.
He read some of the correspondence, it was anything but fan mail, and left the majority of letters unopened. He would deal with them later.
Two days before, Leicester had lost 2-0 at home to Sheffield United and slipped out of the play-off places. Morale was rock bottom among the supporters as results showed no sign of improvement.
“Martin is taking over the best squad of players in the First Division,” so said Mark McGhee upon leaving Leicester for Wolves. The Foxes were top of the table and looking good for promotion. What could possibly go wrong?
In a word, everything. By the time Sheffield United had taken three points away from Filbert Street, O’Neill’s record as manager was beneath poor. It read three wins, eight draws and six defeats; all but two of these results came in the league.
The exceptions were a 0-0 draw in the FA Cup against Manchester City, which was followed by a 5-0 defeat in a replay.
By now, O’Neill had 11 games to save the season and his job. It makes his current situation at Sunderland seem like a minor blip. The way he dealt with that crisis should give the Black Cats’ support some much-needed hope that this campaign can be saved.
O’Neill’s captain at Leicester back then was Steve Walsh (pictured below), who remembers clearly 16 years on from that time just how much pressure his manager was under – and how he literally answered every one of his critics.
Walsh said: “Losing to Sheffield United was the final straw for some of the fans. In fact, it felt like everyone was against him.
“It is funny to look back now because Martin is probably the best manager Leicester ever had, but a lot of supporters wanted him out. They actually protested outside the main stand that Saturday night. It was a desperate time.
“It has gone down in club folklore that he kept every letter – and I do mean every one – that was sent to him in the days after that match. I know for a fact that’s true.
“We went on to win promotion that season and that’s when he replied to every last one of those letters, basically asking the man or woman who wrote in what they thought of him now.
“I would love to know what he said. The criticism got quite personal and yet he dug deep and never stopped believing in the players, which meant we stayed with him. That was the key.”
What happened after that defeat was this; Leicester won seven and drew two of their remaining games. That was enough to see them scrape into a play-off place.
Watford and Stoke were dealt with before a goal from Steve Claridge in the last minute of injury time secured a 2-1 win over Crystal Palace at Wembley.
It was the start of something big. From O’Neill’s having fans shouting for his head outside his office, he won two League Cups and took Leicester into Europe. The hope on Wearside is that history can repeat itself. Walsh said: “Sunderland need to stick with the boss because he is one of the best in the business.
“He went in there a year ago when things looked pretty desperate and worked his magic like he always does. I’m as puzzled as anyone as to why this season hasn’t gone the way he would have wanted, but what I do know is that nobody will be hurting more.
“The one thing I would say to Sunderland fans is that every player in that dressing room will be with the manager. The guy demands that respect and gets it every time. I’ve never known anything like it.
“It won’t be the case that one or two will speak badly about him behind his back. That happens to others managers, not to Martin O’Neill.
“And, anyway, the boss would soon find out who wasn’t with him and they’d be out the door.
“He is a very, very good manager. I have never know anyone better at getting the best out of players, be they good, bad or average. This is a difficult time for him and there are obstacles for him to overcome. He will hate not winning; absolutely hate it. He takes the bad times really personally.
“He will do everything to bring success to Sunderland.”
Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Walsh whether O’Neill was missing John Robertson, his assistant at Leicester, Celtic and Aston Villa.
Robertson, who first met O’Neill during their playing days at Nottingham Forest, choose to stay in the Midlands for family reasons, although it has been suggested that he could join Sunderland on a part-time basis.
“I thought you might ask me that,” Walsh revealed. “What I would say about Robbo is that whatever he did, it worked and worked well.
“Robbo, the boss and Steve Walford were such a tight team and obviously there is one of them missing now, so that is something people have discussed.”
So does O’Neill miss his trusted lieutenant? Walsh, after a long pause, said: “I would have to say no. I don’t think you can blame this run of poor results on Robbo not being there.
“That would be an excuse and the boss doesn’t really go in for excuses.”
If Sunderland fail to beat Fulham in London on Sunday, that would be 19 Premier League with just a single win to Sunderland’s name. That is half a season. Few managers survive such a run of results, no matter what their pedigree might be.
Walsh, however, doesn’t believe his former manager is in trouble because Sunderland owner Ellis Short would, or should, realise what he has at his club.
He said: “The boss will turn things around. His football knowledge is stunning and the manner in which he deals with players is, well, I’ve never seen anything like it.
“The success I had and Leicester had was all down to him. I had my best years under the boss. He actually extended my playing career for a fair few years.
“There is still two thirds of this season to go. There is plenty of time for him. The guy is an amazing manager who loves to prove people wrong. He’s done it once and he can do it again.”